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Why the Gleaner Company Ltd

Observer Business Leader Nominee #10

BY MOSES JACKSON

Tuesday, November 27, 2012    

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Today, we publish the 10th of 15 stories on the nominees for the Jamaica Observer Business Leader Corporate Award. To be considered for nomination, all companies had to be at least 50 years old, or be able to trace their roots to 1962 or before. The award presentation and announcement of the Business Leader Corporate will take place on Sunday, December 2 at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel in Kingston.

"How much for The Gleaner?" the Jamaican enquires of the newspaper vendor.

"Excuse me Sir, the what?" the vendor responds with a mixture of curiosity and incredulousness.

"See it there Sir, The Gleaner, how much for it?" insists the Jamaican, blissfully pointing to a pile of New York Times on the sidewalk in Brooklyn, New York.

By this point the vendor is completely dumbfounded.

The man making the enquiry was a creature of 1960s Jamaica; he had not too long migrated to the USA.

The short-lived contretemps at the newspaper stand was by no means a unique experience, because for most Jamaicans of that generation the Daily Gleaner had become synonymous with newspaper.

Indeed, such was the depth to which this organisation had penetrated the collective psyche of the country.

For a publication that has been around since the 1830s, this should surprise no one.

The Gleaner's power of persuasion, its ability to set social and economic agenda was on display throughout post-Independence Jamaica. It infused the national discourse with its unflinching advocacy of private capital, benign taxation policies, and State support that would allow the private sector to thrive. The Government of the day ignored the priorities laid down by this news organisation at its own peril.

The Gleaner Company flexed its might in post-Independence Jamaica, a period in which there were limited media voices.

This company found a formula to remain financially viable while other competitors that emerged in the media market over the years often quickly fell by the wayside. Its longevity gave it confidence and bragging rights.

In an era of limited television penetration, the print media, with which The Gleaner's name was synonymous, loomed large. It was the medium to which businesses turned almost by default, to introduce their products and services to Jamaicans.

This service provided by the newspaper obviously drove commerce — even if it is difficult to assess or quantify its full economic impact. What is not in doubt is that an informed public is better able and more adequately positioned to engage in constructive economic activities, than a marketplace that systematically lacks critical information.

For 30 years after Independence, The Gleaner stood as the country's only unbroken voice in print.

This organisation was never afraid to leverage this unique position. It threw its institutional muscle behind some of the far-reaching issues of the day. It helped to build national consensus around the fundamental objective of the post-Independence government of steering Jamaica towards industrialisation. This was an important contribution to the country's economic development.

But the newspaper also demonstrated a willingness to turn the national spotlight on Government's frailties. It forced transparency on issues that many would have preferred kept in the dark. In that regard the publication has been an important tribune for the Jamaican public.

It is not that the issues that this or other newspapers face today are anyway less weighty than those that had to be confronted two generations ago, or even that this organisation performed its duties above and beyond all reasonable expectations. But the fact is, The Gleaner was there, did what it did, and has survived 50 years of Independence to continue contributing to national development.

In the absence of the Internet, the paper's role as a veritable source of global information was also pivotal in helping shape critical economic policy discussions within Jamaica — from issues ranging from sugar protocol, to banana exports and migration.

The information it provided through its advertising space on job opportunities enhanced the fluidity of corporate careers. Employers benefited too by having a medium through which they could reach out to the public to fill vacancies that were important to their operations, and in a manner that only the print media of the time could do.

By opening up its editorial pages to the opinions of the ordinary folk, The Gleaner engendered national debates on a range of social, political and economic issues that served as a temperature gauge for policymakers.

But at no time during its modern history has this newspaper's advocacy been more sustained, strident, and ultimately efficacious, than during the period of the mid- to late-1970s when it came in direct confrontation with the Michael Manley regime.

Manley's People's National Party (PNP) was swept into power in 1972 — the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) having served for 10 years as the country's first post-Independence Government. The PNP was returned overwhelmingly in 1976, but this time under the banner of Democratic Socialism — an economic dogma that emphasised wealth distribution.

This radical (for the times) socioeconomic agenda set the Manley Administration and the owners of wealth in Jamaica on a direct and potentially internecine collision course. Manley was the powerful and charismatic champion of the policy of wealth redistribution. The Gleaner Company and its editorial writers aligned themselves with the interest of big capital.

It was fundamentally an economic debate about the reward system in Jamaica and what if any role the Government could legitimately play. The debate was waged primarily through the lens of politics.

Manley suffered a landslide defeat in the elections in 1980 that swept Edward Seaga's JLP into power. Many attributed his defeat to the unrelenting advocacy of the Gleaner Company. If this is so, it would represent a truly consequential intervention on the part of this newspaper.

Throughout the years, The Gleaner has had an appreciable impact as an employer of labour — its business model historically very labour intensive. It has been the country's primary training ground for journalists and for other individuals in key aspects of printing and press technology.

The organisation has been relatively slow in adapting to modern technology, but it has adapted.

It took its first steps towards digitising aspects of its pre-press operation in the early 1980s, but never went headlong into colour printing until faced with competition in the mid-1990s.

Like most Jamaican companies, it has also faced and successfully overcome business challenges.

This firm went public just a few years after its 1834 founding by siblings Joshua and Jacob deCardova. It was listed on the Jamaica Stock Exchange when the exchange was created in 1969.

During the late 1970s, this company faced its most serious financial challenges since Independence — problems which took a sense of urgency given the political atmospherics of the period.

Oliver Clarke, managing director since 1974 and executive chairman since 1976, in a savvy move leveraged the public goodwill that had been engendered by the newspaper's private capital advocacy and floated a debenture. It was over-subscribed raising the requisite capital to help pull the newspaper out of its financial crisis.

Clarke, who controls over 40 per cent of the Gleaner's shares, appointed a new managing director in February 2001 — Christopher Barnes. Clarke remains chairman of the company.

The Gleaner continues its many roles, but today its context is different. It is one of many voices in a media landscape that has been fundamentally reshaped by three developments.

In the first instance, beginning in the early 1990s, there has been a proliferation of electronic media, partly as a response to growing national and global trends that favour electronic over print.

From the perspective of The Gleaner however, the more important factor is the emergence since 1993 of the Jamaica Observer newspaper as its fiercest and most sustained competitor since Independence.

The Observer has forced The Gleaner to change the way it does business — in a manner that the nearly 200-year-old paper has never had to deal with. The introduction of colour press is one example — whether The Gleaner accelerated plans already on the table for this technology, or it represented capital outlay it never intended, is yet to be ascertained.

No one has yet fully assessed the long-term impact of new media on traditional print media — with thousands of Jamaican households now hooked up to the Internet, and having the world's information marketplace right at their fingertips.

The Gleaner has responded to this potentially insidious erosion of its core business by attempting to get ahead of that technology curve. In June last year the company launched a BlackBerry mobile news application that allows users access to developing stories from its newsroom. It also has social networking sites — on Twitter and Facebook.

The current profile of The Gleaner therefore reflects the old and the new but paints a picture of an organisation that has been remarkably nimble for its age. It has been responsive to the many developments in media locally and globally and has evolved into a multi-faceted media organisation.

Among its publications and business lines:

* The Gleaner, The Sunday Gleaner, and the six-days per week evening tabloid The Star.

* The Voice — a publication that caters to minorities, especially blacks, in the UK;

* Track & Pool, a horse racing publication;

* Children's Own, the publication that is circulated in primary and prep schools and which supports The Gleaner's popular annual Spelling Bee Competition for early teen and pre-teen students;

* The Gleaner Online Ltd, a 15-year-old company that provides online news coverage;

* The Gleaner Archives, an online database with historical Gleaner newspaper pages;

* It holds 65 per cent interest in Independent Radio Company Ltd, which broadcasts Power 106 FM and Music 99 FM.

* In addition, the Gleaner publishes numerous insets that are circulated with its daily publication.

The Gleaner offloaded its book retail subsidiary Sangster's Book Store Ltd at the end of 2009.

Last year, the group earned gross revenues of $3.1 billion, and net profit of $118.4 million. For the six months to June 30 this year it reported revenue of $1.61 billion. It has assets of $3.6 billion.

The Gleaner's involvement in social responsibilities includes Crime Stop in which it collaborates with other media houses, including the Jamaica Observer, in publishing information relating to crimes to assist the police.

It is also involved in PALS Jamaica, another collaborative effort to teach and encourage conflict resolution in schools.

Through its Honour Awards, the newspaper recognises individuals who contribute significantly to improving quality of life within Jamaica.

Moses Jackson is the founder and convenor of the Jamaica Observer annual Business Leader Award programme. He may be reached at moseshbsjackson@yahoo.com

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